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Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2013
An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother - a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang - and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.
Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”
Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.
From the Hardcover edition.
I've been an Audible subscriber since the beginning (1999). There are over 500 books in my library. This is the most compelling story I have ever heard. I seriously couldn't turn it off.
To say it is the journey of one man through the "Looking Glass" that is the People's Democratic Republic of Korea, doesn't do it justice. Johnson draws characters that make you feel the oppression of life under that regime. He's obviously done serious study of the North Korean people and culture. The people of this book will live in my thoughts for a long time.
And Johnson addresses this tale with a light touch. It's not maudlin or morose. But it is haunting.
The performances by the readers is equal to this work. The producers uses a very interesting switch at a critical point in this story that brings everything into focus. No spoiler - you'll know it when it happens. But the production makes this recording nothing short of brilliant.
Don't bother to hold the voting this year. I can tell you who wins the Audie.
58 of 64 people found this review helpful
One of my favorite novels of the year, and definitely my favorite novel set primarily in North Korea (I've read four others, or five). This is one of those contemporary novels like 'The Son' by Meyer or Carey's 'True History of the Kelly Gang', or Udall's 'The Lonely Polygamist' that delivers almost everything I search for in a novel: originality, amazing prose, fantastic characters, meaning. These novels might not be 'War and Peace' or 'Moby-Dick' but they definitely show that fiction isn't even close to being dead.
Johnson deftly examines such themes as: propaganda, stories, the concept of self and identity, totalitarianism, love, memory, etc., in a novel way. This book deserves a spot among the other great totalitarian prison books (Koestler's 'Darkness at Noon', Orwell's '1984', and Nabokov's 'Invitation to a Beheading'. Even though only a part of this novel is actually set in a prison, I'd argue that all totalitarian literature is **at heart** just a sub-genre of prison literature. An amazing novel. Don't miss it.
44 of 49 people found this review helpful
It is an important and good thing that this book gives readers a glimpse of the true horror of DPRK. But ultimately this is a story (as Adam Johnson tells us in an afterward) and while I think it intends to show us how REAL people suffer, the fantastical, which makes it such a great read, makes the characters stay on the page.
The narration is super. James Kyson Lee as the voice of the PA system in every home -reminded -irony in some way no?- of the disembodied PA voice in M.A.S.H.
I had tried to post a review with a bunch of links in it. A no-no I guess. North Korea information sites and Kim Jong Il's movie star mistress, Song Hye-rim's Wikipedia page.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
At first, I was impressed with this story. It began compelling and interesting. Then approximately 1/3 - 1/2 into the book, it really took a jump from well written to Pulitzer Prize-deserving. From that point, the story earned its place atop my five-star shelf.
For those who have spent time interested in, or as students of North Korea, this will be particularly thrilling for you. The nature of the story seems so realistic against the true life stories shared by defectors from the DPRK.
What's more, this novel was released two years prior to the release of "Dear Leader" which convincingly (a true story) bears the realities of the Kim dynasty in North Korea and the mannerisms of Kim Jung-il. How Johnson came to personify Kim Jung-il with the realism he was able, verified by the Poet-Laureate of the DPRK is fabulous.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
The Orphan Master’s Son was fascinating and compelling. However, if you don't like graphic violence or the depiction of really depressing situations, then this book won't be for you. (I'm now reading a Stephen King book, and it seems like cotton candy compared to this.)
The structure of the book was interesting, even if a bit confusing. The first half was a twisted adventure story – picaresque, like Don Quixote where it moves from one adventure to the next. The second half was a love story, basically. The second half was really confusing for quite a while. It finally became clear that the story was really being told in three versions – Korean propaganda version, Ga version, and interrogator version. Also, it finally becomes clear that the interrogator character’s whole story line occurs AFTER the ending of the story of Ga and Sun Moon (trying not to give too much away about that ending.)
The characters were so well drawn. The growth and change of Commander Ga (Pak Jun Do) from beginning to end was very moving. In the beginning Ga’s name is Jun Do, and the author mentions how this is like John Doe, a nameless character. I presume he is telling us that Jun Do/Ga is like an Everyman character for North Korea. His various adventures demonstrate so much of what must be going on in North Korea.
Ga’s change at the end represents a hope for lifting North Korea out of the dark ages. I had no idea that North Korea was THAT horrible before reading this book. Shame on me, but it’s true. I credit Adam Johnson for bringing this horror to the eyes of many readers who, like myself, were unaware. Change could result from this exposure; one can only hope.
I found many parts of the book to be extremely disturbing – perhaps more disturbing than any other book I’ve read. The worst parts were those narrated by the interrogator character and having to do with the extreme torture. The depth of horror in the North Korean society seemed to be most represented by him. When he described his parents and it became obvious that even they were afraid of him it was done so chillingly. And when he goes through a change toward the end, well, I suppose that is part of the “redemption” in the book, if you could call it that.
I felt the book was too long. I’m not sure where I’d cut it, but perhaps some of Commander Ga’s various transformations could have been left out or shortened. Another possibility would be to somehow leave out some of the torture scenes which were so graphic and disturbing.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
This insanely unique novel is hard to describe. Its a literary thriller, a modern-day Casablanca, a character study and a unrelenting bleak and painful portrait of a Country (North Korea) where people are forced to live according to a script written by their sadistic leader, and one wrong word could land you in a prison camp. The pace doesn't let up for a moment as the author explores the effects of constant propaganda, deprivation, and the pain of having to hide your true self or risk torture or death. He weaves his story around a man who starts out in an orphanage, becomes a spy, a kidnapper, and ultimately, an imposter who takes on Kim Jong Il. It's beautifully written, brutally realistic and definitely not for the squeamish.
24 of 28 people found this review helpful
Imagine that you live in a society where all your dental and medical care is free. And your food is free. And there is no violent "crime". And everyone works together for a common goal. And the leader of this place is called " Dear Leader".
You wouldn't have to worry about paying bills, what school to send your children, and what to wear at the office party. Why? Because everything is decided for you including your wife or husband, your career, your food, where you will live, and if your children will be allowed to grow up in your home.
Welcome to this book about North Korea and the orphan master's son, the main character. Identities are regularly changed, without a question. Citizens must regularly submit to "self criticism sessions". Torture is routine. You may be assigned a substitute spouse should your current spouse disappear or die. No one is allowed a voice. The dear leader always knows best. Paranoia rules.
This book is written in a style reminiscent of Haruki Murakami, although not quite as wonderful, still very solid.
I keep thinking about this book. I very glad I read this although at times it went on and on and perhaps because I was listening and not reading in print, I found it confusing with the replacement characters.
18 of 21 people found this review helpful
You are going on a journey; insert your ear buds, and be prepared to step into a vortex of imaginative chaos, oppression, corruption, cruelty--you will wonder if you need to check your navigation...is this Johnson's novel about No. Korea, or is this Orwell, Kafka, Murakami (Timothy Leary), that has hijacked your device and carried you into a surreal and convoluted parallel universe created by Phillip Dick?
The speakers blare out...The first blast of propaganda hints at Pak Jun Do's mother--a kidnapped opera singer, a *toy* of the Dear Leader. The father, it is assumed, is the Master of the orphanage. The story is told in 2 parts, the first section being about Jun Do and his upbringing --the dirty and horrific jobs he takes to survive. Here Johnson is at his best describing the tunnels and kidnappings, the rusting fishing boat and the voices that seem to come from nowhere through the ship's radio, the haul of Nike shoes fished up from the sea. The paranoia and oppression entrenched in the men is like the rust taking over the boat. Jun Do goes through several professions and levels of social standing, tunnel fighter, kidnapper, radio operator, then prisoner, hero, foreign dignitary, and eventually takes over an assumed identity, inheriting a wife, and finds love.
Johnson tells the story using several different methods; creative and clever, and at times even humorous, these many devices tell the horrors and atrocities almost like background music floating behind a scene: the propaganda speakers blare out the love the Dear Leader has for his people, while Jun Do travels through the country seeing his people eating grass or raising dogs for food; an interrogator thinks, "we ramp up the pain to inconceivable levels..in a few weeks he will be a contributing member of a rural farm collective" --the prisoner, a professor, was accused of playing pop music from South Korea to his students. The writing methods and devices are like passages to another place on the timeline of the story, adding a new dimension to reader participation, but just as easily can be confusing-- making this a read that requires real effort, but very worthwhile.
If you have ever used the aid of nitrous oxide at the dentist's office, you will relate: I started listening to this novel at the dentist's office (I was scheduled for a 3 hour fun-block). A new book, a fully charged ipod, and the gas mask firmly in place. After about 1 hour, I got a little break. I lifted the nitrous mask from my face, looked at my ipod and thought, "WTH?! Maybe I shouldn't be listening to this under the influence." When I got home, lungs full of oxygen, brain cleared out, I started over. I listened a while then thought, "WTH!?" Once you catch on to the methods, the story becomes clear and easily navigated. Johnson's novel is a piece of inspired literary construction with steps and passages, tunnels, holes, voices from nowhere... with writing that is just as alarmingly beautiful and incongruent. Parts seemed even beyond surreal to me and were not a good fit, thus my 4* rating. But, for all I know, behind that wall of secrecy, this could be complete reality with just a surreal and convoluted leader?
47 of 58 people found this review helpful
The tunnels, a key theme, sum up this story -- very dark, but occasional mysterious sounds and touches of humanity can propel even the most victimized onward in search of a bit of light. I put the book down a few times -- torture is just too hard to read -- but picked it right back up as I was haunted by the main character and vivid images -- men on a ship in complete darkness listening to a woman rowing across the ocean each night; Sun Moon crying over Casablana; the absurd so-scary-that-they-feel-possibly-real diplomatic exchanges (North Koreans trying on boots in Texas?!)...
I don't know a lot about North Korea, and hesitate to write this review given what more-informed readers have posted and the whiff Tom Clancy that I smell, but...this is definitely a well-crafted, unique story. And I'm going to read more about NK.
13 of 16 people found this review helpful
A new favorite in my 200+ audiobook library. It is a moving epic story about life in North Korea. One of the best I've ever listened to, I can not say enough about how wonderful this book is. There is a section about half way through where a case of mistaken identity makes the book a little hard to follow, and a little bit tough to believe, but work through it and you will not be dissapointed at how it all comes together. An amazing experience, absolutely engrossing, this is one I will listen to again and again and again.
12 of 15 people found this review helpful
The first part of the book is as incredibly captivating depiction of the lives of the main characters in the isolated, oppressive country of North Korea. The story is beautifully written, at times almost poetically, at times with such authenticity of the portrayal of the most intimate thoughts and feelings, that I found it breathtaking and could not stop listen often late to the night. What in my opinion also adds a deeper dimension to the first part of the book is that at times it is based on real historical events, such as the period of famine or the abductions of several people from Japan. These events, and the way they formed people are described with such accuracy, and so realistically, that it provided a very powerful glimpse into the lives of people in this country, which so little is known about.
However, in the second part, the books becomes a lot more surreal. The main character begins to impersonate a well known North Korean war hero, part of the story begins to take place at a very 'high-tech' torture units, with detailed descriptions of torture equipment and techniques, which do not sound very believable, the late leader, Kim Jong-il is depicted almost as a comical caricature.
Personally, I was not very fond of this switch, from a very genuine and authentic, to almost a science-fiction style. I found it a lot less enjoyable form the literary style point of view, as well as confusing, as it almost had a feel of 'pro-US propaganda' and I fear that it may be misleading for some readers.
Still, the first part of the book was superb, and the book was definitely well worth the listen just for that!
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
One of the best books I've heard. I'd listened to 'Nothing to Envy' about North Korea but this book is even better at giving an insight into this dystopian country. It reminded me of the bits of 'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell which are set in the future, though this is terrifyingly present. It's in two parts - the first part immerses you in the life of the orphan master's son and is beautiful and bleak, plotted at breakneck speed like 'The History of Tom Jones' set in 1984. The second part is more fantastical and unlikely, reading like a thriller and a love story and utterly compelling. I think if you like David Mitchell, or 'The Sisters Brothers' or 'Nothing to Envy' then you'll like this. Highly recommended- a book I couldnt stop listening to.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
I found this book ,alarming and fascinating the narration was exceptionally good couldn't put down. patricia taylor.
Heart breaking, hilarious, thought provoking. Simply my favourite book of all time. I can't wait to listen again.
what a fabulous tale! i couldnt stop listening and have stayed up all night over several nights. I'm now exhausted but it was so worth it.
riveting horrific tender. makes you thank god you're lucky to be born where you were. highly disturbing. beyond belief.
What made the experience of listening to The Orphan Master's Son the most enjoyable?
This is an excellent recording of a gripping tale based on a living hell.
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
Due to some of the graphic detail and prolonged brutality I chose to read this book in bite-size chunks.
Any additional comments?
The Orphan Master's Son caused me to repeatedly think about the plight of those living in oppressive conditions and circumstances where individual freedom is crushed. This book is universal in its message to humanity.
Any additional comments?
The story was utterly fascinating.. never read anything like it. I realize it's a fictional novel but omg, if North Korea is anything like it is described in this book gods help those poor souls who dwell within! Very well written and gripping story telling.
Would you listen to The Orphan Master's Son again? Why?
Certainly. There is so much in this book, there will be things that I missed.
What was one of the most memorable moments of The Orphan Master's Son?
Some novels win prizes for reasons that remain unknown to the reader, but in this case it’s clear why this book won the Pulizter: the setting is so compelling and mostly unknown to the everyday person, that it alone pulls you through the story. Is it well written? Not particularly. Is it a masterpiece? Certainly not. At time confusing and repetitive, the narration slows down in several points, marking this as a pretty boring book to get through, with characters that blend into one and a prose that remains pretty ordinary. I stuck with it to a predictable ending, and managed to skip 3 chapters towards the end and still know exactly what was going on- this novel needs some pretty severe editing. It’s not a book I would recommend, but if you’re a patient reader with a curiosity for North Korea, read on.
1 of 3 people found this review helpful
This was my first fictional story about North Korea after reading a couple non fictional books. Can't say I was impressed. Even for North Korean standards this story seems to be a bit out there and not very convincing. Many things just don't make sense. Happy it's finished. Going back to non fiction for now.
An amazing story , cleverly written and well performed. Exposes a lot about North Korea and it's tyrannical leader.
Best audio I have listened to this year.
Extraordinary insight into life of the people under the completely mad dictatorship. Much more compelling following the life of Jun Do. And in part 2 of the interrogator as well as the new jun do. Very clever. Could not stop reading/listening!!
Marvellous & imaginative.